Tippu Tip

Tippu Tip (ca. 1840-1905), or Hamed bin Mohammed bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi, was a Zanzibari trader who extended his influence into the Congo region and much of East Africa.

Hamed bin Mohammed el Murjebi was born into a Zanzibar merchant dynasty at a time when trading routes from that East African metropolis were beginning to reach into the area which today forms the Republic of Zaïre. His first expedition around the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika into northern Katanga took place in 1859-1860 and was followed by two more campaigns along the same route (which he preferred to the more commonly traveled route via Tabora and Ujiji) in 1865 and 1867-1869. It was during the course of his third expedition that he gained the nickname of Tippu Tip, an onomatopoeic imitation of his firearms, and befriended the British missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

In 1870, at the head of a 4, 000-man caravan, Tippu Tip returned to the Congo and, over the following decade, built a formidable empire centered in the Maniema region, between the Lualaba and Lomami rivers, where British explorer V. L. Cameron visited him in 1874. In the process Tippu Tip established his ascendancy over a number of African chiefs who agreed to serve as his auxiliaries, as well as over a number of rival Zanzibari traders who had preceded him on the Upper Congo and had set up an entrepôt at Nyangwe.


With Stanley in the Congo

There, in October 1876, Tippu Tip met Henry Stanley, who persuaded Tippu Tip to escort him down the Congo River. Although Tippu Tip accompanied Stanley only halfway, to the Stanley Falls (at the site of modern Kisangani), he later returned to the area, and his caravans gradually pushed farther and farther downriver, to the point where the Aruwimi River joins the Congo.

In the meantime, however, Tippu Tip had returned to Zanzibar and had been approached by Sultan Bargash of Zanzibar as well as by an envoy of King Leopold II of Belgium for the purpose of enlisting his influence in support of their respective ambitions. During 1883-1884 Tippu Tip seems to have been playing both ends of the field or to have been divided between his loyalty to the Sultan and his realization that European influence would probably prevail in the Congo.

During Tippu Tip's absence, Stanley (now in King Leopold's employ) reappeared on the Upper Congo to found a post at Stanley Falls, a site which Arab traders also wanted to use for commercial purposes. In June 1884 a modus vivendi was reached between Tippu Tip's lieutenants and King Leopold's representatives regarding each group's respective sphere of influence, but Tippu Tip rejected this settlement and established himself at Stanley Falls to personally supervise the situation in November 1884.


Decline of Zanzibar's Power

The Berlin Conference, however, summarily disposed of Zanzibari territorial claims, and relations between Arab traders and agents of the Congo Free State rapidly deteriorated. Tippu Tip traveled back to Zanzibar in 1886 across what had now officially become German East Africa, and in his absence his men burned down the Congo Frees State post at Stanley Falls. In Zanzibar, Tippu Tip realized (as did the Sultan himself) that the days of Zanzibari power had passed, and in February 1887 he accepted from Stanley a commission from the Congo Free State as governor of the Stanley Falls district. At the same time, he also agreed to man the expedition which Stanley had been commissioned to organize for the purpose of rescuing Emin Pasha (E. Schnitzer), a German condottiere in the service of Egypt who had been stranded in the Bahr el Ghazal area as a result of the Mahdist uprising in Sudan.

Tippu Tip traveled back to the Upper Congo in the company of Stanley but this time by way of the Atlantic coast and up the Congo River. Aside from its doubtful usefulness, the relief expedition was marred by the near annihilation of its rearguard, a disaster for which Stanley attempted to place the blame on Tippu Tip.

The old trader returned to Zanzibar in 1890 to defend himself in the lawsuit brought against him by Stanley. Although Tippu Tip's good faith was vindicated, he never returned to the Congo. In the meantime, relations between the Congo Free State and the Arabs had begun to deteriorate again as a result of various European activities which undermined the Arabs' commercial position.

Tippu Tip's son, Sefu, attempted to reassert control over one of his father's African auxiliaries, Ngongo Lutete. The latter, however, went over to the side of the Congo Free State, and in the ensuing conflict (1892-1894) the commercial and political control of the Arab traders over the eastern Congo was shattered and Sefu himself was killed. Tippu Tip, who had vainly tried to dissuade his son from opening hostilities against the Europeans, spent his last years in retirement disrupted by litigation.


Further Reading on Tippu Tip

Tippu Tip related the story of his life in Heinrich Brode, Tippoo Tib: The Story of His Career in Central Africa (1907). Accounts of Tippu Tip's career are in Roland Oliver and Gervase Mathew, eds., History of East Africa, vol. 1 (1963), and Eric Stokes and Richard Brown, The Zambesian Past: Studies in Central African History (1966).